Grief Map

Locked Gray / Linked Blue: Stories

Kem Joy Ukwu

Kindred Books • Release Date: February 6, 2018

Print ISBN: 978-1-942083-97-9 • Ebook ISBN: 978-1-942083-99-3

Brain Mill Press offers Locked Gray / Linked Blue in ebook and print editions. Ebook buyers receive access to MOBI (Kindle), EPUB, and PDF files, offered without DRM restrictions. Print book buyers receive a physical copy of the book and access to the ebook files in all formats.

This is an extraordinary collection of stories. Debut author Kem Joy Ukwu is already a master at conveying -- with admirable elegance -- the small and large emotions, and the tensions, the moments of generosity, of betrayal, and of hope that define the human experience. This is sure to be the beginning of a long and important career, and I cannot wait to read what comes next.

—Robin Black, author of Life Drawing and If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This


Kem Joy Ukwu writes of faith and families, of mercy, of birth and death. She examines the cool, dark shadows of regret and the knife of obligation, holds who and how we are supposed to be up against who we actually are. Ukwu is a jewel of a writer—graceful, sparkling.

—Leesa Cross-Smith, author of Every Kiss a War and Whiskey & Ribbons


Ukwu’s language is unadorned and masterfully deliberate, holding a reader’s attention while slowly peeling away one layer after the next to paint the most subtle portrait she can.

—Atticus Review

A finalist for the New American Fiction Prize, this glinting and razor-sharp collection of linked short stories draws power from Ukwu’s crystalline characterization and a voice that is as singular as a champion slam-poet’s.

Family dynamics, bad romance, work, and money haunt the New Yorkers in these stories as they nevertheless triumph. A sister is faced with the individual, human reality of family separation; a daughter navigates her difficult mother’s wedding-day crisis; an unexpected proposal from a neighbor represents hope and resignation in equal measure.

These stories invite readers into the most private of hearts with clear, forceful, and memorable prose. Ukwu wields the constraints of the short story as if she had invented them expressly to connect us to each other.


Kem Joy Ukwu’s fiction has appeared in PANK, BLACKBERRY: a magazine, Carve, TINGE, Blue Lake Review, Jabberwock Review, Auburn Avenue, The Brooklyn Quarterly and Day One. Her short story collection manuscript, Locked Gray / Linked Blue, was named as a finalist for the 2016 New American Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from Brain Mill Press. Born and raised in the Bronx, she currently lives in New Jersey with her husband. More of her work can be found at


AN EXCERPT from Locked Gray / Linked Blue: Stories by Kem Joy Ukwu

© Kem Joy Ukwu, 2018. All rights reserved.


You look inside your blue backpack to make sure you have everything. Your report card is neatly wedged between your class picture and the book you’re currently reading. It’s the fourth installment of a series of books about a young detective. The other three books you own from that series are placed in the other zipped compartment of your bag. You dream of becoming a sleuth one day, solving the mysteries of other people.

You look up at your aunt, a young woman named Isabel, whose cocoa-brown eyes complement her long braids. She is wearing a black pea coat and a blue cashmere sweater, with her long black skirt draping over her black leather boots. She is royally confident, effortlessly stunning.

“I’m ready,” you tell her.

Aunty Isabel smiles. “Good. Shall we, Mademoiselle?”

You nod, and the two of you leave her apartment. You smile because you love it when she calls you Mademoiselle. Makes you feel taller.


After you and your aunt leave the building, the two of you walk toward the corner of the street. The frigid air makes you relieved that your aunt made you wear two layers of clothes instead of one. Your black bubble-goose jacket and yellow ski cap make you look like a giant penguin. Your walk is more like a waddle because you find it hard to keep a cool stride as you are wearing jeans, heavy stockings, and chunky boots.

A black car waits at the corner. Her boyfriend, whom you call Uncle Reuben, is waiting in the driver’s seat. He rolls down the front passenger window and waves to you. You wave back as Aunty Isabel opens a backseat door for you to enter his car. She takes the front.

“Make sure you buckle up,” she instructs you. You do as she says, making sure your seat belt is properly latched.

“Buckled!” you alert, as if you are on your way to your favorite toy shop or, better yet, your beloved bookstore.

You all drive off, and the voyage begins. You take off your gloves and clasp your fingers together to keep them from twitching and twirling, knowing that you will soon reach your destination, where your reward awaits.


You arrive at a parking lot filled with other cars and buses and people bustling all over.

You and Aunty Isabel leave Uncle Reuben’s car. You say good-bye to him.

The two of you make your way to the line of mostly women and children waiting to step up on a bus. Your fingers are acting up again because they know that you are getting much closer. It has been too long since you have won last. You have been waiting for a long time.

Five months. Eleven days.

Aunty Isabel gently squeezes your hand. “We’re almost there,” she says.

You two step up onto the bus and choose two seats at the back, with you by the window and your aunt right next to you. You remove your backpack from your back and hold it close to your chest. After a short while, the bus drives off the lot and makes its way onto a bridge that crosses over a huge stream of water. You wonder if it’s the Atlantic Ocean or just some wide river. The sun reveals the crystals sprinkled on the surface. You feel like swimming. You think of the last time you frolicked in a pool. It was June. A few weeks before the—using Aunty Isabel’s special word for it—incident.

The incident that made your gift disappear, with the help of blue uniforms and silver badges.

You want to return to happy thoughts.

You now think about the main character from your favorite book series, picturing you’re a fellow detective. You’re answering everyone’s questions, holding a magnifying glass, smoking a pipe that tastes like bubble gum.


The space reminds you of your cafeteria at school, huge and colorless. There are children spread about, kids older than you, some younger. Dressed in bright orange V-neck shirts and matching pants, women are smiling, talking with their children. A few men in gray uniforms with collared shirts and thick black belts are keeping watch. Your beautiful princess is yelling at one of the uniformed watchmen, pointing her manicured finger at him.

Twenty minutes earlier, you two had arrived at this large room with the other children and supervising adults. Both of you had waited quietly by one of the long tables for one woman in particular to walk up to you with big, open eyes and greet you with a tight hug.

Aunty Isabel’s patience had been drifting away, bit by bit, when she approached one of the watchmen to ask what was going on. Now her patience is disappearing altogether, chunk by chunk.

“What do you mean she’s been moved upstate?”

“She was transferred this morning.”

“Someone should have called me,” your aunt says. “Your office knew we were coming.”

“This happens all the time. Not our call,” the uniformed man counters. “Sorry.”

Your detective skills inform you that he is not sorry. He is bored and bothered.

Aunty Isabel turns her face toward you. You know what she wants to say. And you know she doesn’t need to say it. As you grab your backpack and sling it over your shoulder, you tell yourself what your aunt has told you throughout this past year, many times.

Tears solve nothing.



Share This